Ruth Gruber, a maker and witness to history for 70 years, is too busy giving interviews about her upcoming documentary to spare much thought for her 99th birthday, coming Sept. 30.
The film, “Ahead of Time,” is based on the title of one of her 19 books, and although Gruber has spent a lifetime beating her hotshot male colleagues and treading where few, if any, women have gone before, her filmed autobiography is more the record of a working journalist than a paean to feminism.
The 73-minute documentary tells the story of Gruber’s life in a fairly straightforward manner, alternating historical and archival footage with interviews of Gruber and others, but what a story it is.
Born in Brooklyn in 1911, one of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants, “I assumed the whole world was Jewish,” she said in a phone interview from her New York City apartment.
She learned otherwise in 1931, when she studied in Germany on a post-graduate fellowship at the University of Cologne as Hitler was reaching for power.
Her perpetually worried Jewish mother, as Gruber painted her, warned her that if she were to attend a Nazi rally, the Fuehrer himself might step off the platform and shoot her through the heart.
Ruth promised to carry her American passport in her bra as a shield, but her mother responded, “You don’t think he can’t shoot you through the passport?”
Gruber did attend a Nazi rally, but, more remarkably, researched and wrote her doctoral thesis — on British writer Virginia Woolf — and passed her oral examination all in one year, becoming at 20 the youngest “doctor” in Germany and the world.
After that, Gruber adopted her lifelong motto, “You can do anything you want to do,” she said.
Returning to America, she became an instant media celebrity as the Brooklyn wunderkind, but that didn’t help her get a job in the middle of the Great Depression.
She tried freelancing and collected the usual rejection slips. Finally, the New York Herald Tribune printed some of her articles, and one day, the paper’s president, Helen Reid, called her to offer her a job as a reporter. As her first assignment, Reid told Gruber to write a series on women under fascism and communism.
That’s all Gruber needed. In 1935, she became the first reporter allowed by the Kremlin to visit and report on the forbidding Soviet Arctic, and old photos in the film show Gruber dancing with Eskimos, kayaking and swimming in Arctic waters.
In 1941, Harold Ickes, the crusty Secretary of the Interior, took a shine to the pretty reporter and sent her on an 18-month mission to Alaska to explore, among other tasks, whether Alaska might be suitable for homesteading by GIs after the war.
Ickes sent her on an even more daunting mission in 1944, to chaperone 1,000 refugees, many survivors of concentration camps, traveling from Naples, Italy, to the United States. Many of the refugees had never seen an American woman and assumed that Gruber was Eleanor Roosevelt.
She went on to cover the Nuremberg war crimes trial, reported on the displaced persons camps, and then on the Anglo-American deliberations on the future of Palestine.
Gruber again came to world attention when she covered the saga of the refugee ship Exodus and was the only reporter allowed by the British to accompany the refugees on the voyage back to Hamburg.
Her striking pictures of the defiant crew and passengers of the Exodus were featured in LIFE magazine and gained worldwide sympathy for the Jewish cause. In the 1980s, at 74, Gruber struck out in a different direction, visiting remote Jewish villages in Ethiopia.
In her personal life, Gruber finally heeded her mother’s pleas and married at 40. She has two children and four grandchildren and loves to talk about them.
By sticking to the facts and eyewitness accounts, without hype, “Ahead of Time” is a welcome antidote to “Haven,” an over-jazzed and error-laden 2001 CBS miniseries on Gruber’s life.
So, what makes Ruth Gruber run, The Journal asked Ruth Gruber.
“I felt I was being held too tightly by my parents, like being laced up in a corset, and I needed to get away from Brooklyn,” she responded.
Was she worried about going to Germany in 1931, with Hitler ascending? “Not really; he looked too much like Charlie Chaplin. Besides, I loved German culture, you know — Beethoven, Bach, Goethe and so on.
“When my father urged me not to go, I told him, ‘You knew when it was time for you to leave Odessa and come to America. Now is the time for me to go.’ ”
Who are her role models? “One is Helen Reid of the Herald Tribune, who paved the way for so many young women to become journalists. Another is Virginia Woolf, who showed how a woman could write with truth and courage.”
Was it a handicap or an advantage in her journalistic career to be an attractive woman? “Well, it never occurred to me that I was pretty, but I guess it was an advantage. My male colleagues were very good and generous to me.”
What does she consider to be the key to her successful career? “One is to write, or photograph, from the heart, while still remaining objective. The other secret I can summarize in four words: ‘Never, never, never retire.’ ”
“Ahead of Time” is directed by Robert Richman and produced by Zeva Oelbaum. It opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 24 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.